Back to School!

Classes started on Monday. I'm actually pretty happy about that. This summer was rather hectic and stressful in many ways. Also productive, but still. It was basically a good counterexample to the clueless types who insist that teachers only work nine months out of the year. For me, the summer tends to be harder work than the regular school year. Teaching isn't easy, and it's rather time consuming, but it's familiar and predictable and routine.

Of course, if all you know about higher education comes from what you hear in the news, you could easily think that modern academic life is an endless tale of woe. Apparently our daily existence involves endlessly walking on eggshells, lest the thought police and the forces of political correctness pounce to end our careers. We are surrounded by delicate, entitled students who believe they should never be expected to address an unpleasant thought. We are expected to provide endless “trigger warnings,” lest we offend the fragile sensibilities of our weak-minded students.

Now, I don't mean to make light of the issue. Political correctness is a real problem, and it is, indeed, an offshoot of broader trends in higher education. Nowadays kids are too often raised by parents with an excessive concern for their self-esteem, and they tend to view college as purely about gaining a credential. Administrators tend to view students merely as paying customers, and not as people to be educated. Of course, they have been driven to that view by the relentless budget cuts all universities face. The states have mostly abandoned their public universities, for example, to the point that for most of us, money from the state is actually a small percentage of the budget. But we are still expected top operate under often outdated state regulations. The situation is worse in states run by Republicans. For example, in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker decided that it was a terrible burden for the state to have one of the premiere public university systems in the country, and has dutifully done what he can to destroy it.

All of this is true, but it's easy to exaggerate the problem. Political correctness is something I read about in the news, I have never actually encountered it. And most of the kids I see are not lazy, entitled jerks. Quite the contrary, they are mostly eager to learn and willing to work hard. Nor are they looking for any opportunity to take offense, or eager to run up the food chain to make trouble for you if you in any way inconvenience them. The horror stories you hear just aren't part of my daily experience, and I don't think they are part of the daily experience of most of my colleagues.

There are plenty of caveats, of course. I work in the sciences, as opposed to the humanities. If the class is called “Calculus II,” there isn't much mystery about what you are going to find when you get there. The sorts of issues that tend to make people touchy rarely arise in math classes, and students who take upper-level math and science courses tend to be pretty confident and tough-minded in any event. Alas, it only takes one or two jerks in a class to spoil things for everyone else.

Still, these issues do occasionally come up. I have taught a course on the history of mathematics on several occasions, and issues like the Church's treatment of Galileo are inevitably discussed. I have never had a problem having a thoughtful conversation with the students about such things. On occasion I teach discrete probability, and when I do I make a point of showing the class the Hardy-Weinberg law. I've occasionally found it necessary, in explaining some mathematical idea, to discourse for a bit on the nature of science. When I do so, I make sure to mention evolution in some way. I have never had a student get the vapors over it.

So, yes, political correctness is a problem, as are all of the other issues I've mentioned. But the fact remains that being a college professor is still the best job there is. People pay me to do math all day. I have enormous freedom to direct my scholarly interests in whatever direction I choose. Simply put, my job is as close to do whatever you want and we'll pay you as you ever find in life. What's not to like? Is there some other line of work I could pursue where there are no annoyances, and where everyone you meet is pleasant?

If there is, maybe I'll pursue that. But until then I think I will stick with what I'm doing, frustrations and all.

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sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 03 Sep 2015 #permalink

Political correctness is not a real problem. Political hypercorrectness is the problem.

#4 Dara: can you give me please an example of political hypercorrectness that I can understand what you mean by that?

Thank you

I'm now retired. I agree with Jason, that being a college professor must be one of the best jobs. I was being paid to do what I wanted to do anyway (except for all of those meetings).

I never ran into a problem of political correctness. The closest was when somebody complained on a faculty mailing list, that a PoliSci class on "Statesman" was sexist. Others responded that Margaret Thatcher (who was in office at that time) would make a great statesman. Then somebody complained about the sexism in the name "Anthropology". I'm not sure if I actually sent a response suggesting that we merge the departments of Anthropology and Gynecology. Then it suddenly stopped. I think most faculty recognize the silliness of it all.

Maybe there are occasional PC problems in some classes. Like Jason, I was in a science department with mostly serious students.

And a response to JimR. Yes, I have run into helicopter parents, but it is fortunately rare. I can only think of one case. I made a point of talking to the student, only to have replies come back from the mother. I felt sorry for that student. Parents need to know when it is time for them to get out of the way.

By Neil Rickert (not verified) on 03 Sep 2015 #permalink

I once had an occasion to play golf with an intstructor at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey CA. I regret that I cannot remember his name but he was from Scotland. I shall never forget his answer when I questioned him about his duties there. After a long time thinking over a difficult putt (which he sank) he declared in the thickest Scottish accent, "I teach young men to think" . Ah the good old days.

By Rick Meidell (not verified) on 03 Sep 2015 #permalink

I am inclined to agree that "political correctness" is a problem, but only because the phrase is at best meaningless, at worst a "dog whistle". Much wowserism & bowdlerisation get sheeted home to the PC quite unjustly. The term has mutated so much & so many times over its lifetime that we really should abandon it & call the behaviour that we're calling out by its proper name: be it censorship; bullying; bowdlerising; lying.

There are much more pernicious ways to enforce dull conformity than coded forms of respect.

Well its kind of a modern phenomenon; you've got a sensationalism-hungry country of 320 million people, the news services are going to be able to find those one-in-a-million oddball sensationalist cases. So I would compare overwrought PCness on college campuses to things like shark attacks; yes they really happen. Yes, we should strive to fix the problem where we find it happening. No, this doesn't mean its a credible risk for most students or professors. Students should no more fear that professors will fail them for being non-PC and professors should no more fear students might sue them for word choice than your average person should fear swimming in the ocean because sharks.

Some topic suggestions--which I'd like to see considered and discussed first as topics :Is the topic a good one? If so, in what respect(s) ? how should the issue(s) be framed? Etc.

1) Human progress: how do we think about it? What does it mean? What do we mean by it? Do we take it for granted? Why or why not? Ought we take it for granted? Whatr are its sources? What things promote it? What things threaten it? Is it simply inevitable?

2) The phenomenon of time: are sentient beings "embedded" in a wholistic and unified experience of time--that is, something that encompasses all such creatures (note, terrestrial and extra-terrestrial) or, is time a psycho-social experience and phenomenon only and one which is part of the world experience of only certain sentient being which are ar our beyond a threshold level of consciousness--that is, e.g. amoebas (sp?) tnough sentient, probably have no capacity to experience time--not only, of course, in the abstract sense that we thnk about it but even in the most fundamentally physical sense, as in any physical sensations which relate or convey any, even the most rudimentary, aspect of time experience.

Thus, in a lifeless universe, would "time" be meaningless and nonexistent --even as an aspect of physics and inanimate physical phenomena ?

By proximity1 (not verified) on 07 Sep 2015 #permalink

Editing correction :

... which are at or beyond ...

By proximity1 (not verified) on 07 Sep 2015 #permalink

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